Summer fluff is blown away by the first serious offering in months. Noel McAdam casts a glance over the adapation of one of Ian McEwan's finest novels
(15, 125 mins) Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn
What if you told a lie and could never make up for it? What if lives were ruined by the lie, even if untruth had its reasons?
And what if the lives ruined where those of people you loved?
Atonement, in theological terms, is the reconciling harmonisation ('At-one-ment', geddit?) of mankind with God through the sacrificial death of Christ.
And in more prosaic terms, of course, it is dictionary-described as something done in amends for wrong-doing.
Atonement is also among the finest novels from one of Britain's greatest modern authors, Ian McEwan, and destined to be among the best films of the year.
After a summer of film fluff - most of it fun, some fantastic but essentially fluff - comes the first serious movie experience seemingly in months.
And yet the book and film are also, essentially and in a way I can't describe because it would spoil both, lies.
The story is set in a 1930s/40s Grand House in England, the battlefields of Dunkirk and the chaos of wartime London, before a final more contemporary leap.
Kicking off on a sumptuous, sultry summer day, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, drawing on McEwan's work, are soon playing with narrative and fictional devices, the play-within-the-play and typewriter tapping. All along we are made aware of the power of words.
Slowly, the central events emerge, a series of mishaps and misunderstandings culminate in a frivolous note foolhardishly - and containing a word which still contains the power to shock and insult today - sent in a letter.
Soon everyone is enveloped in a cruel, awkward mess and in a place where even words cannot help.
Knightley finally comes of age with her performance as Cecilia Tallis, the Bright Young Thing who loves and loses in a single day, after too many years spent Pirating in the Caribbean with King Arthur and nonsense like Love, Actually.
Here we have the same team, led by Wright and including producer Paul Webster, which brought us arguably Knightley's last truly noteworthy appearance in Pride and Prejudice.
McAvoy, meanwhile, consolidates his reputation as a class act, on a roll following Starter for Ten, The Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane, as the housekeeper's son with whom Knightley falls in love.
Young actress Soairse Ronan, who is from Ardattin in Co Carlow, is also superb as the 13-year-old Briony among an excellent supporting cast including the reliable Blethyn as McAvoy's mum.
The lie which traps all of them, growing as ever until it becomes as plain as the nose on your face, is germinated by confusion and misconception, fuelled by anger but no less devastating for that.
The tale is not told chronologically but flicks four years forward, then suddenly six months into the past and a few weeks back and forth until the appearance of Vanessa Redgrave.
Wright's direction is assured and imaginative, with a particularly stunning extended sequence on the war shores of France (actually filmed in Redcar) and must be destined for several awards.
Hampton has a strong track record in adapting novels including Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and ably brings the spirit and feel of McEwan's novel (shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize and cruelly overlooked because he had won it for the lesser Amsterdam) to the screen.
But the ending, while perfect in terms of narrative experiment and theme, may still disappoint.